Saturday, May 30, 2020

5 x 5: Silent Film Stars



Five facts about five silent film stars . . . 


Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977): 


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In 1919, Chaplin and fellow filmmakers Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith formed United Artists so that they could finance, and make, their own films whilst retaining creative control. The studio took off and eventually branched out to build a chain of movie theaters. Movie attendances were at an all time low in 1955, causing Chaplin to sell his shares. In 1963 UA released the first James Bond film. Today UA is owned by MGM. 

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Chaplin wrote much of the music for his won films, including one that has become a standard – “Smile” – covered by numerous singers. Hear Nat King Cole sing it (a 1954 hit for Cole) and watch Chaplin as The Little Tramp character by clicking on: 

"Smile" is based on an instrumental theme used in the soundtrack for the 1936 Chaplin movie "Modern Times". Chaplin composed the music, while John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added the lyrics and title in 1954. 

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Chaplin won his only competitive Oscar in 1973 for composing the theme to his 1952 film Limelight (the film wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1972). 


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Chaplin was a perfectionist. When he worked on his short film The Immigrant, Chaplin shot 40,000 feet of film, which was a lot for a 20-minute short. Chaplin cast actress Virginia Cherrill in City Lights to say just two words, “Flower, sir,” but he forced her to repeat them for 342 takes. 

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The kid with Chaplin in the 1921 movie The Kid was Jackie Coogan. The film combined comedy with drama and was Chaplin's first film to exceed an hour. 


Coogan’s mother and stepfather squandered his millions from film earnings up to $70,000,000 in 2015 dollars. He sued them, establishing what is now known as the Coogan Act which protects the earnings of child performers. Older readers will remember Coogan as Uncle Fester in the 1964-1966 TV series The Addams Family. 



Clara Bow (1905 – 1965): 

Clara Bow, 1932 

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Clara Bow’s appearance as a plucky shopgirl in the film “It” brought her global fame and the nickname "The It Girl". Bow came to personify the Roaring Twenties and is described as its leading sex symbol. 


The invention of the concept It is generally attributed to Elinor Glyn, but already in 1904, Rudyard Kipling, in the short story "Mrs. Bathurst" introduced It: “It isn't beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It's just 'It'. Some women will stay in a man's memory if they once walk down the street.” 

In February 1927 Cosmopolitan published a two-part serial story in which Glyn defined It: “That quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With 'It' you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. 'It' can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” 

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With her huge eyes and expressive face, Bow was the inspiration behind the iconic cartoon character Betty Boop. 


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During her lifetime, Bow was the subject of wild rumours regarding her sex life; most of them were untrue. A tabloid called The Coast Reporter published lurid allegations about her in 1931, accusing her of exhibitionism, incest, lesbianism, bestiality, drug addiction, alcoholism, and having contracted a venereal disease. The publisher of the tabloid then tried to blackmail Bow, offering to cease printing the stories for $25,000, which led to his arrest by federal agents and, later, an eight-year prison sentence. 

The widely spread story that she held orgies during which she serviced the entire USC football team (including a young John Wayne) is untrue, see the snopes discussion at: 

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In 1927, Bow starred in Wings, a war picture rewritten to accommodate her, as she was Paramount's biggest star, but was not happy about her part: "[Wings is]...a man's picture and I'm just the whipped cream on top of the pie." The film went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Picture. 

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Hollywood saw Bow as a scruffy, lower-class kid whose behaviour jarred with the smart set: 

"They yell at me to be dignified. But what are the dignified people like? The people who are held up as examples for me? They are snobs. Frightful snobs ... I'm a curiosity in Hollywood. I'm a big freak, because I'm myself!" 
– Clara Bow, 1929 
“My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I'm sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can't do that by being Mrs. Alcott's idea of a Little Woman.” 
- Clara Bow, Kansas City Star, 1933 




Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926): 


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Born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella but known professionally as Rudolph Valentino. He was also known as the Latin Lover (a title invented for him by Hollywood moguls), The Great Lover, or simply Valentino. 

A sex symbol of the 1920s, he was an Italian actor based in the United States who starred in several well-known silent films including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, Blood and Sand, The Eagle, and The Son of the Sheik. 


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During the press tour for his final film, The Son of the Sheik—which opened to critical acclaim in August 1926—he collapsed and was hospitalised due to a perforated ulcer. He died a week later, aged 31. 

In medicine, Valentino's syndrome, named after Rudolph Valentino, is pain presenting in the right lower quadrant of the abdomen caused by a duodenal ulcer with perforation. 

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Valentino was in serious debt at the time of his death, and his heirs could not afford a burial plot for him. Friend and screenwriter June Mathis agreed to loan him one of the spaces she owned at Hollywood Park Cemetery on a temporary basis, so that he could be interred without delay upon his body’s arrival in Los Angeles from New York. However, Mathis died the following year, all further memorial plans for him fell through during the Depression, and so his body remained in that temporary space. 

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There was considerable speculation during his life, and after his death, as to whether he was gay or bisexual. Many felt that his two marriages were screens for his homosexuality, especially since his first wife was in a lesbian triangle at the time and used her marriage as such a screen. This was known as a “lavender marriage”, a male-female marriage where both parties use the marriage to conceal their respective sexual orientations. The term stems from the colour lavender being associates with homosexuality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Current thinking is that Valentino was straight 

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A few months before his death a Chicago newspaper columnist attacked his masculinity in print, referring to him as a "pink powder puff". A lawsuit was pending when he was fatally stricken. One of his last questions to his doctor was, "Well, doctor, and do I now act like a 'pink powder puff'?" His doctor reportedly replied, "No, sir. You have been very brave. Braver than most.". 


Theda Bara (1885 – 1955): 


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Bara was one of the more popular actresses of the silent era and one of cinema's early sex symbols. Indeed Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol of the film era. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname "The Vamp" (short for vampire), later fueling the rising popularity in "vamp" roles that encapsulated exoticism and sexual domination. 

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Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but most were lost in the 1937 Fox vault fire. She retired in 1926 and never appeared in a sound film, Jolson’s The Jazz Singer being released in 1927. 

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Bara was known for wearing very revealing costumes in her films. Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code) started in 1930, and then was more strongly enforced in 1934. 




Although Bara took her craft seriously, she was too successful as an exotic "wanton woman" to develop a more versatile career. 

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Born Theodosia Burr Goodman in 1885 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the studios promoted Bara with a massive publicity campaign, billing her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. They claimed she had spent her early years in the Sahara desert under the shadow of the Sphinx, then moved to France to become a stage actress. They called her the "Serpent of the Nile" and encouraged her to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews. Some film historians point to this as the birth of two Hollywood phenomena: the studio publicity department and the press agent (later evolving into the public relations person). 


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Promotional claims fed off the fact that her stage name was chosen because it is an anagram for "Arab Death". In reality, "Theda" was a childhood nickname for Theodosia, and "Bara" was a shortened form of her maternal grandfather's last name, Baranger. 


John Barrymore (1882 – 1942): 


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Barrymore was an American actor on stage, screen and radio, a member of the Barrymore theatrical family and the grandfather of Drew Barrymore. 

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He was known as the Great Profile and featured in silent films and in early sound films. 

Barrymore as Jekyll in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) . . .

. . . and as Hyde. 

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Barrymore struggled with alcohol abuse from the age of 14, was married and divorced four times, and declared bankruptcy later in life. The Great Profile died in 1942 from cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure, complicated by pneumonia. 

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Errol Flynn's memoirs claim that the film director Raoul Walsh borrowed Barrymore's body before burial to leave his corpse propped in a chair for a drunken Flynn to discover when he returned home. Gene Fowler, a close friend of Barrymore, denies the claim. However, in the words of Mandy Rice Davies , he would say that, wouldn’t he. 

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One of my favourite anecdotes that I have posted previously:

After a long day of shooting a film in Hollywood, John Barrymore and some fellow actors stopped in at Lucy's, a popular watering hole near Paramount Studios. After one-too-many drinks, Barrymore excused himself to go to the bathroom. In his slightly inebriated condition, however, he inadvertently chose the ladies' room. 

As he was relieving himself, a woman entered and was shocked to see a man urinating into one of the toilets. 

"How dare you!" she exclaimed, "This is for ladies!" 

The actor turned toward the woman, organ in hand, and resonantly said in full actor's voice: "And so, madam, is this."



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